The Pandemic in Uniform

Copyright free image from the National Guard

On March 29, 2020, Capt. Brett Crozier sent an email to three admirals with authority over him and copied it to a handful of Navy captains. Crozier was the skipper commanding the aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt, deployed in the West Pacific at the time as part of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. The email detailed the depressing situation aboard the U.S.S. Roosevelt with an active COVID-19 outbreak on their hands and how ill-prepared the entire chain of command was to deal with a virus like SARS-CoV-2. He asked to depart Guam and evacuate most of the ship to test the sailors, the most valuable asset. “I believe if there was ever a time to ask for help it is now regardless of the impact on my career” [1].

The email had a memo that the media got a hold of. Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly decided to relieve Crozier of command on grounds of involving the media. But Modly himself had to resign after the public heard he addressed the Roosevelt sailors by insulting Crozier [1].

The ship ultimately sailed into Guam and tested all 4800 sailors in April and May. The ship was on a mission to sail to Vietnam as part of a strategic show of strength and operational display in the face of a rising China. Admiral Philip S. Davidson, the highest-ranking officer in the Pacific, ordered the ship to continue as planned despite the risk of COVID-19 at the time. But it backfired and Crozier’s supporters believe that he made the right decision as Washington projected calm and poise and did not act immediately to prevent any unnecessary service member deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, more than 1000 of the 4800 crew members would go on to test positive, with one crewmember passing away from COVID-19. [1].

While the Department of Defense (DOD) continues their scheduled military operations while preparing contingency plans, the DOD is responsible for COVID vaccine rollout program known as Operation Warp Speed (OWS) to distribute an approved vaccine to the American public and military [2]. The DOD announced the program on May 15, in which OWS should start rollouts by January 2021, while meeting the FDA standards that are normally sought. The DOD reports that after the vaccine candidate is submitted, the manufacturer will concurrently start production as they wait on the approval of the Biologics License Application and Emergency Use Authorization proposals by the FDA. OWS and the CDC will oversee the distribution process and priorities, with the Trump administration submitting a distribution plan, published by the HHS in consultation with the DOD and CDC [3]. But beyond DOD vaccination plans, the armed forces are called on for new deployments not in any country across the sea but in the United States to render aid, at least in theory.

On March 30, with New York on the brink of collapse due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 70,000-ton USNS Comfort pulled up into New York Harbor with 1000 beds ready to go [4]. They were tasked with acting as another medical facility not to treat COVID-19 specifically while the rest of the New York healthcare system could focus on COVID-19. It was supposed to be a symbol of hope in a dying city. But practically speaking, the ship only ended up treating fewer than 180 patients despite. Gov. Cuomo dismissed the ship, which sailed back to Virginia. Michael Dowling, head of New York’s hospital system, called the Comfort a “joke” as it would not accept coronavirus patients, the patient population most in need of more beds [3]. So President Trump allowed the ship to be configured into a 500-bed hospital for treating COVID patients. But the same day the ship allowed coronavirus patients aboard for treatment, a crewmember tested positive. A similar situation happened in Los Angeles, where the ship docked from March 27 to May 15, treating 77 patients in total [5].

Despite such large holes in operational planning and execution during this pandemic, the Department of Defense is working tirelessly to protect as many units as possible from COVID and minimize risk while they continue routine operations [6, 7, 8]. Many non-deployed units have switched to remote work and U.S. bases have tried to socially distance themselves from non-essential work. Various drills have been postponed or cancelled while essential units are given training on dealing with COVID-19 in the field. The reported numbers as of October 14 include almost 72,000 cases among all service branches which have millions of personnel, including contractors and non-affiliated DOD personnel, with 1426 hospitalized personnel and 99 deaths [9]. 

This probably means the DOD was effective in travel restrictions, one of the biggest tools used to quarantine and test entire bases to keep all COVID outside, and only letting personnel back in once they have been tested and isolated for two weeks. The very low hospitalization and fatality rates are probably because DOD personnel are younger and healthier than the general population. The question is how much these numbers underestimate the true impact of SARS-CoV-2 on our men and women who did not choose to die from a pandemic even if they are serving.

Edited by Anthi Luong

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